Colombian cumbia began as many popular Latin styles began: as folklore. Dating back to the colonial period in Colombia's Atlantic (Caribbean) coast, cumbia emerged as a courtship dance and music that celebrated the union of African and indigenous people (called zambos), and went on to become one of the most popular dance styles in both South and Central America and beyond.

Traditional cumbia was (and still is) played on drums, flutes and percussion instruments of African and indigenous origins, and featured lyrics primarily in Spanish (although Creole cultures tended to mix in African and native words). The specific drums are the tambor mayor (a carved log drum with calf or goat skin stretched across the top, held between the legs and played with the hands), the tambor llamador (a smaller version of the mayor) and the tambora (a large two-headed drum played with sticks). The smaller percussion include the maracas (larger than most varieties) and the guache (a bamboo or tin tube filled with seeds). There are two specific types of ensembles that play the traditional styles: conjunto de cumbia, which contains the drums and percussion, and the conjunto de gait, which adds the indigenous cactus wood flutes known as gaitas to those same percussion instruments. (The gaitas were named by the Spanish, who thought they sounded remarkably similar to the Galician bagpipes.) One of the most important artists to actively record, perform and document this and other forms from the region is Totó la Momposina, regarded as an authority of Zambo (African-Indian) culture and quite an energetic performer, too.

As cumbia's popularity spread to the urban areas of Colombia, musicians began to adapt a more modern type of instrumentation and also simplified the rhythm, reducing the number of drums in these new groups. With the popularity of Cuban and other Latin American music being played on the radio and in the dancehalls, orchestras with horns, piano, bass and drums developed the cumbia into a much simpler, more homogenized version, catering to middle class tastes. By the 1950s and '60s, cumbias were widely recorded not only in South America but in Central America and Mexico as well, giving the style a new adopted home; in countries such as El Salvador and Nicaragua, cumbia is as prominent as the local music, and sometimes even more so. While in Mexico, cumbia evolved and took on an entirely new, Mexican identity bearing little resemblence to the original Colombian form.
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